Archive for February, 2007

Getting Early Feedback

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

The temptation is to use a on-line survey tool to save your time, but I think for your early customers a questionnaire may only give you the answers that you are looking for, not the information that you need.

Conversation Works Best With Early Customers

One on one conversation works best in my experience.

It’s important early on to ask open ended questions and to consider your product more of a hypothesis (See Steve Blank’s “Four Steps to the Epiphany” for more on this framework) than an accomplished fact. Even though it’s been debugged and ready for rollout it doesn’t mean you understand the benefits that customers (much less prospects) perceive that it offers.

You should also consider instrumenting your product if it’s SaaS (or adding a “flight recorder” if it’s on-premises software or delivered as an appliance) that with the user’s permission can “phone home” some usage patterns. In particular you want to be able to assess how much use (and what commands, command options, service areas, etc.. are being accessed) they are making. It’s not uncommon to start removing commands, options that are little used.

You should pay as much attention to your “dropouts” as much as your “frequent flyers.” With the kind of customer counts you are talking about you should be trying to e-mail/IM/Skype/call as much as construct a survey. Even up to a 100 or so early users you want to be as open ended in your data collection as possible.

Don’t Wish For Smarter Customers Or React When They Call “Your Baby” Ugly

It’s easy to become frustrated or wish for “smarter users” when your customers look at the value of your offering differently than you do, or don’t adopt certain features or commands that you thought would be compelling. Sometimes it can help to have a third party interview customers and non-customers as they will have less of a “you are calling my baby ugly” reaction.

One thing to focus on as you scale up and add more prospects is how your existing customers invite new folks to evaluate your offering. What is the value they promise if someone new adopts: this “language of referral” is extremely important. You should probe for it in your conversations and incorporate it into your messaging. It can help you to identify distinct types or segments of users who get different kinds of value from your offering.

Maximize Learning by Being Efficient With Customer’s Time

The temptation as engineers is to look for a technology solution that’s efficient with your time, but surveys and the like to channel answers along pre-determined paths. This can cause you to overlook real benefits, and real problems, with your product–especially on the part of your early customers.

See also

Building Communities using Search Co-op

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Consulting Business, Startups, Tools for Startups

We have added Google’s Search Co-op to our Resources page. As an entrepreneur, you need to dabble in so many fields. Some areas of expertise an startup needs are legal, accounting, funding, marketing, sales, public relations, recruiting, hiring, partners, and advisers. We work with some great experts and partners and you can take advantage of their best practices, checklist and templates. If you need help with Learning the Business Side of Consulting, Growing My Software Startup, or Developing a Product, take a look at the resources we have gathered together.

If you would like to suggest an additional site that we should add, please use the Contact Form to suggest it.

One Search Co-op feature I would still like is an article rating system. I would like readers to quickly rate how useful the article was for them.

Julian Fellowes on Persistence, Getting Started, and Logical Consequences

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Quotes, Rules of Thumb

I was doing some background research on Julian Fellowes after listening to his screenwriter’s commentary on the Gosford Park DVD and came across three quotes that you may find useful as an entrepreneur.

The first two are in response to Leilah Farrah’s questions in an interview in the Wednesday June 25, 2003 edition of the Scotsman.

Q: What do you wish you had learned at school but were not taught?

A: […] the real gap in my education was not a failing of my school, but of my period. The 1960s pretended that everyone had years and years to decide what to do with their lives and they should go off round the world and find themselves and all that. As a result, an enormous number came to their chosen professions too late to make a mark in them. You still see them wandering around Chelsea in leather jackets with long, thinning hair, casualties of the lie that there was plenty of time.

This echoes Thomas Szasz’s observation that “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.” I think the best way to prepare for an entrepreneurial career is to start or take part in a new business.

Q: What is the single most important lesson you have learned outside of formal education?

A: That the key ingredient of success is persistence. And luck, of course. I am happy to help people these days, if I can, but I try to help only those who are persistent and determined. I know the others will not make it no matter how much help they are given.

The ability to persist and maintain your focus is one of the key ingredients of a successful entrepreneur’s approach to a new business. The ability to understand, anticipate, and accept the consequences (and the risks) of a decision are the key to prudent risk taking, another requirement for success in a startup. Bella Stander interviewed Fellowes in the Book Reporter on February 18, 2005 and asked him

Q: Americans believe in second chances, in starting over. Miss Manners recently wrote, “This country was founded by people who weren’t doing well at home.”

A: The notion that you can get a facelift and be 33 again is a false one. You have to take the consequences of your choices: That’s the one you married; that’s the mother or father of your children; this is the career you chose; you have to make this career work for you. You can’t spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t go to med school. You have to have the strength to realize and accept when there isn’t still time. I’m all for doing something for yourself and not allowing other people’s expectations to steamroll you, but you should choose something where you have a reasonable expectation of fulfillment.

The concept of accepting the consequences of your decisions is echoed by Thomas Huxley and Robert Ingersoll:

“Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.” Thomas Huxley

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” Robert Ingersoll

VC Investment in Asia and What It Means to Korea

Written by Francis Adanza. Posted in Events, Startups

Tonight I attended a KIN / KASE Event: VC Investment in Asia and What It Means to Korea. The guest speakers were Han Kim, Partner at Altos Ventures and Tae Hea Nahm, Partner at Storm Ventures.

I have heard many VC’s speak on how they evaluate investment opportunities and what their criteria for investing is. What I really appreciated about these two talks was that these VC’s spoke very honestly about the types of investments VC’s make and the value they bring to a company. What follows is my attempt at an accurate summary of the two talks.

Many entrepreneurs believe if they raise venture capital they will become successful. VC’s do not increase your chances of success. In fact they help:

  • Increase your burn rate
  • Re-shuffle your management team
  • Speed up your sales process

While these might seem like good things, they can work against your objectives as an entrepreneur.

When companies are self-funded, people tend to be much more prudent with their money. Venture backed companies tend to spend money more quickly and less carefully. VC’s like to bring in their own personnel to steer the ship. Even though this seems like an effective strategy, success is more often driven by those most passionate about the business. Due to the nature of their business, VC’s accelerate the sales process. If the recipe is not yet determined, wrong messaging can be detrimental to the companies marketing efforts.

If you look at the numbers you will find that first tier firms like Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital have win percentages of 30%. That means 70% of their investments fail. What do you think the chances are of venture backed companies that were not financed by one of these firms? Startups should not focus on raising capital but focus on creating a successful company. VC’s look for investments in companies that already have achieved a certain level of success. They leverage that success in order to grow faster and create a greater exit.

Why isn’t there more investment in Korea? The people are well educated, hard working, and willing to work for less. We believe that since there are only 50 million people in Korea, the economy is not big enough for most VC investments. We also believe that government issues have held a constraint on the country’s ability to globalize many of their products, thus preventing foreign investments.

2 Disruptive Trends: Open Source & SaaS

Written by Francis Adanza. Posted in Uncategorized

Last night, I attended the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG. The guest speaker was Barry Klawans, CTO of JasperSoft who spoke on 2 Disruptive Trends: Open Source & SaaS. From Barry’s talk I learned:

  • The advantages vs. disadvantages of SaaS (Software as a Service)
  • The similarities between SaaS and Open Source
  • How to leverage open source to build SaaS applications

By definition, Software as a service (SaaS) is a model of software delivery where the software company provides maintenance, daily technical operation, and support for the software provided to their client. SaaS is a model of software delivery rather than a market segment. (wikipedia)

Barry defined the key characteristics of a SaaS application as:

  • Hosted multi tenanted system
  • Highly scalable in that it offers the ability to leverage the market. 
  • Integrated solutions
  • Metadata driven for customization
  • Web services based API’s

Some of the advantages of SaaS are that it allows you to integrate separate data sources into a hosted data warehouse. SaaS also allows you to protect your intellectual property because the customer is paying for the service and never sees the source code to determine how the result is generated. Some of the disadvantages of SaaS include; islands of data geographically spread out, thus making it difficult to track, security concerns around web hosted services, and currently most applications are being built as stand alone apps, not as services.

Barry saw several similarities between SaaS and open source:

  • Both are about community. In order to keep their communities happy, organizations are forced to be responsive. These organizations can then leverage their communities expertise and abilities through peer review.
  • Both open source and SaaS applications are constantly updated with frequent software release cycles.
  • Both are highly customizable with potential for explosive growth and scalability. In fact, open source is a great way to build a SaaS infrastructure.

Because open source has so much depth from large community based support it is a cheap and effective way to build a SaaS infrastructure. There are many mature open source projects that have been detailed, API tested, and provide suites for service layers. Open source is easy to integrate and allows users to create user-generated software content through either incremental individual effort, or collaboration.

Clark Dong: Software Startups Don’t Need VC’s To Start

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Blogging, Startups

Clark Dong gave an interesting demonstration of a new action item tracking tool for startups called TaskPick at last night’s SDForum Startup SIG. He came on after my show and tell on how and why we use Central Desktop in our practice. He was articulate and energetic and I was very impressed with his approach.

Software Startups Don’t Need VC’s To Start

I did some Googling and came across a long comment Clark Dong made on VentureBeat last week that I wanted to highlight (this is an excerpt from a longer comment, text was not bold in original).

Last fall I started a new web 2.0 company in the team collaboration space. And for this new company I have chosen not to go the VC route. Why? They are asking for way too much (50% off the top) and frankly I can get it going without them (i.e. I don’t need to kiss up to them). The VC model was created in the early days of the semiconductor era when an entrepreneur needed millions of dollars of startup capital before they could can make a run at it. That is no longer the case. It is now possible to start a play, tighten the belts a little, and reach revenue. The capital equation of the new startup world has changed.

So what is my current view on VC?s? I think they are a dying breed. It is now easier than ever to start companies in the web space. Open source tools and nearly free on-line services means you can become very productive quickly without needing lots of money to spend on development tools or infrastructure. Hosting services are almost free and will only get more reliable, faster, and have larger storage. For those venture funds that can not adapt quickly and add more value to entrepreneurs, they will find themselves with lots of money but not able to participate in this new round of web innovation (sure, the semiconductors and the networking plays will still need startup capital). VC served a useful function back-in-the-day, but the clock is ticking for them.

My Take: Return to Normal From DotCom Bubble

I think a lot of folks got into Venture Capital during run up to the last bubble who had fewer skills and less experience than was required for them to be successful in the much less hospitable environment that developed after 9/11. But I look at it more as a correction back to more “normal levels” of active VC’s than their incipient extinction.

Implication: More Competitors

I haven’t worked out all of the implications for the dramatically lower cost of starting a new software/SaaS firm, but to a first order it would seem to place a higher premium on strategy and business development: in particular the need for differentiation is now greater because you are likely to be faced with more competitors.

What’s Your Passion?

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Consulting Business, Startups

Don’t forget the dream to change the world that got you started: your passion is an important element of craftsmanship and a commitment to excellence.

What’s Your Passion?

Recently, I chatted with a well-established consultant–she’s been working for more than a decade. She was having trouble developing a short elevator pitch to describe what she did and how she helped people. This can be a problem when you are starting out, but she had clearly been successful for a while and this was something else.

Sometime I do this or do that, sometimes I work with this group inside the company. It all depends.

If you have been consulting for a while, or bootstrapping, you can lose your passion. How are you going to change the world? What was dream when you originally got started? What is your passion?

Find Your Passion?

Pay attention to the activities, challenges, and accomplishments that give you energy. De-emphasize, outsource, or partner to address issues or customer needs that you cannot summon enthusiasm for.

Related Blog Posts

9 From Greg Knauss’ “An Entirely Other Day”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Blogging

Greg Knauss wrote “An Entirely Other Day” sporadically from 1994 to 2006 (with five year or so gap between 2001 and 2006 and who knows, he may start up again). It’s experiential blogging at its finest, with some sharp observations–some introspective–of work, marriage, children, illness, aging, and death.

Experiential Blogging

from Art, Schmart comes a engineer’s vision of hell: a cocktail party at an art gallery. The phrase “pulped animal spread” is memorable. And wouldn’t the walls of hell be covered by pictures of lawyers? Maybe some marketeers as well.

Hip people mingle around and munch on some sort of pulped animal spread on some sort of multi-grain cracker. There’s generic jazz fusion playing. And the walls are covered with pictures of lawyers.

from At Play in the Fields of the Lawyers I guess they didn’t ask him “Which side do you wear it on?”

We had spent a good week scampering around to every tux shop within a twenty mile radius of our house trying to find something that fit me. As delicate as these salesmen are, you think they could come up with a better euphemism than “barrel-chested.” And, dammit, if another guy with a tape measure around his neck gives me the once over and says, “There’s plenty of room in the crotch, but the seat’s a little tight,” I’m going to throttle him.

from There Goes Your Tip is a description of another problem for the aging male: excess dihydrotestosterone (DHT).

So I’m at the barber shop, perched awkwardly in a red leatherette chair, with little bits of hair crawling down the back of my neck. As the barber finishes up the sides, she asks me to skootch down a little so she can reach the top of my head.

“Oh, this will go much faster,” she says. “It’s a lot thinner up here.”

From I made someone disappear yesterday comes a meditation on sudden loss and the evanescence of life.

I made someone disappear yesterday.

Late last week, my father-in-law’s girlfriend died suddenly. Heart attack. One day she was there, the next day she wasn’t — blam. I went to the funeral, but that was the first time I had ever seen her, lying in her casket.

Yesterday, I helped clean out her apartment. It was a small place, a studio, and the work mostly involved stuffing things into plastic bags for Goodwill to come pick up. Shoes: bag. Clothes: bag. Bedding: bag. Books, knickknacks, art: bag. Every material possession she had: bag, bag, bag. In two hours, it was all gone. Wiped clean. Erased.

There were little things all around — a mug that said “My Next Husband Will Be Normal,” an ab workout tape, a styrofoam box of leftovers in the fridge — that whispered the same lie that each of us tell ourselves every day: Of course I’m going to be here tomorrow. Of course. I’ve got plans. Where would I go?

From Man, Do I Miss Those Days a vision of giving over completely to the task at hand. Now days I can’t make it much past 4am: I find I have been sleeping sitting up, or I try and hit a number of keys at once with my forehead and wake myself back up, or I’ve been sleeptyping several hundred keystrokes (hold down to repeat) of the same character). I get the sense that Greg was lucid and entirely immersed in his task until something, either the cold or hydraulic pressure, took him out of flow.

Once, years ago, I had a morning deadline, a lot of code to write and a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Around 4am, I realized that the window was still open and I was freezing, I hadn’t gone to the bathroom is something like fifteen hours and I was having trouble hitting the keys because my hands were trembling.

Man, do I miss those days.

From Things Fall Apart points out obliquely how we spend most of our time denying our mortality. I think for engineers the hope is to transcend through our work (as he outlined in Man, Do I Miss Those Days), and in startups in particular we feel that we can break any rules that we want to. But ultimately, nature cannot be fooled.

Plans, friendships, schedules, jobs, lives, loves, bodies — things fall apart.

Joanne’s dad moved out of the ICU today and into a rehab facility, still paralyzed from the neck down and still without a real diagnosis. He woke up one morning four weeks ago and by noon he couldn’t move. The doctors have no idea why. Transverse myelitis — more of a generic catchall than a disease — is what they’re calling it, but that’s only because they’re out of ideas. “Sometimes these things happen,” one of his doctors told me, matter-of-fact.

from I Remember Bachelorhood If he substituted diapers for the beer he could be a family man.

The guy in line in front of me at Costco has two things in his cart: a case of beer and a pre-cooked chicken.

I remember bachelorhood.

from Because Life Loves a Challenge

“Well, at least now things can’t get any worse”
is the most dangerous sentence in the English language.
Because Life loves a challenge.

From How We Influence Our Children a parental epiphany “so that’s how other people see me.”

I walked outside to get something from the van this morning, and across the street was a neighbor, out for a walk with his toddler. I smiled and waved and noticed that they were dressed the same, his boy and him — they were wearing shorts and t-shirts and both had baseball caps on.

And I thought about how we influence our children, how they’re tiny mirrors of everything we are, consciously or not. How we dress them and teach them and show them the world will influence how they live the rest of their lives.

And I turned around to head back inside and Tom was standing in the doorway, wearing a ski cap, waving my lightsaber TV clicker and without his pants.

Which pretty much confirmed my theory.

All in all it’s worth reading for the insights of someone who makes his living as a software engineer observing the vicissitudes of life. It’s not really about work, but more catching yourself in the act of having an epiphany. It would actually make a nice book since there are so few outbound links (and almost all to other pieces/posts that he wrote).

Ten Tips for Leveraging Blogs and Wikis in Your Consulting Practice

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Blogging, Events, skmurphy

Is my topic this Thursday, February 15, at 7:00 PM, at the IEEE-CNSV meeting at KeyPoint Credit Union, 2805 Bowers Ave., Santa Clara, CA. The event is free. I will cover a number of practical suggestions for using blogs to promote a consulting practice and wikis to foster project team collaboration against a deadline.

Blogs and wikis are two “new” social software technologies that have been deployed in production use now for more than a decade. It’s time to move from a focus on technology and features to methodologies and business results that can be achieved.

You will leave with a better understanding of why your blog is the dial tone for your website. I wrote in Welcome Entrepreneurs that “I think a blog also acts a dial tone for a website in that it signals a commitment for interaction and participation on the part of the authors. And that’s certainly the case here.”

You will leave with a better understanding of why most wikis are private, unlike the Wikipedia or many open source project wikis, and why they uniquely support an extremely fast methodology for project coordination and collaboration that enables project teams to reach a working consensus on deliverables against a deadline. If you, your prospects, or your clients are relying on an email inbox as the primary filing system for keeping a project organized (e.g., “who has the most current version of a this project document?”), this talk will provide insight on new ways to get your proposals accepted and your final work signed off for payment.

As I mentioned in my overview of Nancy Blachman’s Google Guide talk at CNSV: if you are a technical consultant in Silicon Valley, the IEEE Consulting Network for Silicon Valley frequently runs useful and informative events and is an organization you should consider joining.

Interesting Discussions From Fast Forward 2007

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Blogging, Events

I attended FASTforward ’07, this week. There were some very interesting talks:

  • John Battelle, author of Searchblog: Search is a conversion. Search becomes a way to have a dialog with your customers.  Interaction with your website should mirror a conversation. Batelle offered the New York Times site as an example of one that did not seem to value their customer’s contribution to the site.
  • Jeannette Borzo of the Economist Intelligence Unit reported on a study on Web 2.0 .  She delivered the most surprising news: CFO aren’t Web2.0 friendly. But CEO believe Web 2.0 will increase innovation as well as decrease innovation cost.  It will be interesting to see the CEO and CFO’s views evolve.
  • John Markus Lervik, Fast CEO, Search is connecting people with content.  Results from a search might answers, concepts, people, or facts.
  • Tim O’Reilly: Power of Web 2.0 is collective intelligence.  The Internet is a platform. How do we turn data into knowledge?
  • Zia Zaman, SVP at FAST: Search is about making connections and business decisions. It is about finding answers not results. An answer can be fellow expert or a better understanding of the problem you are trying to search for.

The conference expanded my thinking about about search technology and it’s impact on business. At the end of the day, there is still a huge difference between Internet search and enterprise search. On the Internet, authors spend a lot of time, money, and energy making their pages easily found. In the enterprise, authors spend little or no effort to make them found. Cleaning up data quality issues is still 2/3 the effort involved in making enterprise information searchable:

  • Many documents are missing title, authors and other meta tags.
  • Often dates are the same on an entire set of documents.
  • Because documents don’t cross-link as often, page rank and relevance algorithms give way to keyword counts that are not as useful. More effort is required to indicate valuable or useful reference material in the enterprise.

Recipes For Longevity in “Mutual Improvement Clubs”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Events, skmurphy

Another excerpt from William Feather’s “The Business of Life
From page 262, an entry entitled “A Conservative Club.”

More than forty-five years ago a group of men…organized a club for men of common intellectual interest. It was agreed that the membership would be limited to thirty, and that twelve meetings would be held each year in the fall and winter months. In rotation, each member would read a paper. Sole expense would be the price of a modest dinner and a fine of twenty-five cents [1949 dollars] for an absence, the revenue of the latter to pay the expense of sending notices of meetings.

Dinner, the founders decreed, should be served promptly at six, and the paper should be read at seven, or as soon thereafter as the business of the club could be disposed of. Adjournments should be at eight-thirty, discussion of the paper ending at the tick of the clock.

The survival of the club is testimony to the wisdom of the founders. The financial resources of the club are never more than twenty-five dollars, but the obligations are nothing, so that members are never pestered with financial worries.

Meetings are held in a private room of a downtown club. The membership comprises college professors in different departments of learning, lawyers, editors, and businessmen.

The attendance is rarely less than 75 percent of the membership. Withdrawals from membership seldom occur except from death or departure from the city.

Of particular interest is the amount of solid ground that can be covered in two and half hours when a meeting begins promptly and the discussion is held to the subjects of the paper.

Of even more interest is the simplicity of the organization. Most interesting groups are wrecked by ambitious go-getters who seek big memberships and expensive quarters and employ professional secretaries. Others are wrecked by the failure to set limits to the time, so that there are long monologues that become tiresome.

This sounds a little like Ben Franklin’s Junto (excerpt from his autobiography)

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had formed most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discussed by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

I have been in some meetings like this in the last few years. Some of our smaller SDForum Marketing meetings, notably “Internal Marketing–Fostering Technology Adoption” and “Building Strategy and Driving Consensus through Shared Mapping“, had a very free form discussion. But not often enough.

I welcome any suggestions for any serious “mutual improvement  groups” that follow a formula similar to the one outlined above.

Bootstrappers Breakfast – Bootstrapping Startups Invited

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Startups

Join other bootstrappers–startup CEO’s, CTO’s, and founders–for breakfast and discussion. We meet at different restaurants in Silicon Valley from 7:30-9AM, your only cost is your meal and a tip. Come compare notes on operational, development, and business issues with peers. If you are serious about your business and are open to discussing substantive issues and helping your peers, please join us.

Greg Knauss on Bloggers: Experiential vs. Referential

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Blogging, Thought Leadership

Greg Knauss was a guest blogger on kottke last year and ended his two week stint with this observation on referential and experiential blogging:

There are two kinds of bloggers, referential and experiential.

The referential blogger uses the link as his fundamental unit of currency, building posts around ideas and experiences spawned elsewhere: Look at this. Referential bloggers are reporters, delivering pointers to and snippets of information, insight or entertainment happening out there, on the Internet. They can, and do, add their own information, insight and entertainment to the links they unearth — extrapolations, juxtapositions, even lengthy and personal anecdotes — but the outward direction of their focus remains their distinguishing feature.

The experiential blogger is inwardly directed, drawing entries from personal experience and opinion: How about this. They are storytellers (and/or bores), drawing whatever they have to offer from their own perspective. They can, and do, add links to supporting or explanatory information, even unique and undercited external sources. But their motivation, their impetus, comes from a desire to supply  narrative, not reference it.

SKMurphy Blog is A Blend of  Referential and Experiential

I think we tend to blend these two styles on this blog. We do a fair amount of “reporting” on events that we attend, particularly when we think we heard something useful worth sharing and the event was lightly covered, if at all, by other bloggers or press. To the extent that we are trying to offer advice, we try and back up our prescriptions with reference to both supporting and contrasting perspectives in the blogosphere or in other reference material.

Experiential Blogging Key to Startups Telling Their Story

As you think about your own blog for your startup I think it becomes more compelling to the extent that you talk about

  • real experiences with customers,
  • interactions with prospects,
  • internal issues including team discussions and different perspectives,
  • the decisions you’ve reached and why you’ve reached them,
  • the decisions you’ve revisited and why you’ve revisited them.

Pixar’s Ed Catmull Highlights Value of Post Mortems

Written by Francis Adanza. Posted in Events, Rules of Thumb

The Annual Stanford Entrepreneurship Conference featured Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, as its keynote speaker. Ed gave a great presentation on lessons learned from structurally organizing a company for effective communication across its departments.

In the beginning, Ed believed they had created a very strong culture at Pixar. They had paired up programmers and animators as peers. Other companies had one group clearly dominant: either a technical culture or an animation culture. He believed that the artists, the technical people, and the production managers were all interacting well. He felt that it was a fun, energetic, and social work environment. Pixar’s open door policy of “necessary honesty” meant anyone could talk to anyone at anytime.

In actuality, this was far from the truth. After Toy Story’s great success, Ed called for a company post mortem. He discovered that there were major disconnects among different staff members. The artists and the technical people felt like the production managers got in the way and slowed down production. The production managers felt like they were treated as second class citizens.

Ed asked himself how he had missed these problems and came to the conclusion that Pixar’s success had masked them. Ed found out that the production managers put up with the situation because overall they loved working on a ground breaking project with a great leader. Ultimately if the project was not so productive and rewarding, he would have lost some valuable employees along the way. Ed key insight was that

Often, companies tend to focus on “what’s working” vs. trying to figure out “why is this not working?”

This is why the post mortem is so important. Pixar has incorporated the post mortem process at the end of every project. The challenge is getting each person to be completely honest and share intimate details about their experience. The post mortem is a grueling process that everyone hates. For the most part everyone is tired, burned out, and has no patience to reflect on everything that has gone wrong. The things that went well are usually obvious so they spend a majority of the time trying to figure out what needs improvement

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